Interpretation in Bishop and Heaney

This week’s poems were easy to read, but harder to interpret.

I read Bishop’s “The Fish” literally and connected it to the destruction of nature. I saw a fish who was ravaged by human action, yet survived. The fish is caught by a novice fisherman, with the last line of the poem reading, “And I let the fish go”. It’s as if the fisherman has performed a noble act by unexpectedly releasing an elusive fish. However, for me, the act of release lacked mercy, because the fisherman’s boat has begun to pollute the water the animal lives in (“oil had spread a rainbow around the rusted engine”). I read some of the blog posts earlier today and one post compared Bishop’s fish to a veteran. When I reread the poem, the themes of war and survival became more prominent, especially considering the time period of Bishop’s life and poems. I tried to extend my initial interpretation to apply in this context and started seeing different angles to approach the text. Post-war, men returned home aged and ravaged by human action. They were released from war, and while their home (like the fish’s water) differed from the certain danger of war, it held it’s own set of struggles, especially emotional ones. The place they lived was not the same as it had been in their youth.

I also enjoyed Heaney’s “Digging”.The poem has a weight of both responsibility and guilt. Heaney does not perform hard labor like the generations of men before him (this may be a result of the Irish Potato Famine, which occurred shortly after he was born), he must instead “dig” with his pen. Heaney is challenged to live up to the pen before him without doing the same thing.

The simplistic language of these poems allows the opinions and bias of the reader to especially influence the image each piece conveys.


Johnson’s Conflict of Personhood

Barbara Johnson’s essay connected with an examination of abortion that occurred in my women and gender studies course. There is an evolution of ideas concerning the “personhood” of a fetus. In the 1884 case, Dietrich v Northhampton, a woman attempted to sue a town due to a miscarriage caused by their poorly constructed highways. The court denied her claim, ruling the fetus, at 5 months along, had ceased to exist while it was still a part of the mother.

As one gets closer to the current time period, the fetus becomes portrayed a person upon conception. This is echoed in legal proceedings, as courts during the 1900’s and 2000’s begin addressing fetuses as legal entities with rights. The woman has evolved into a vessel purely for this unborn child.

Johnson writing echoes the above sentiments. She asks the reader to question the boundaries between existing and not existing, which is the point of using apostrophe. Johnson comments on the abortion poem, “The Mother”, when she states, “The children are a rhetorical extension of the mother, but she…has no existence apart from her relation to them”. A mother is not a mother if her children never existed. Johnson’s essay displays this conflict between unborn children and their mothers – a woman chooses between herself or a baby. Apostrophe creates a being from something inanimate; abortion destroys a being that never existed – unless apostrophe is applied to that being, resulting in a murderous mother.

Johnson’s argument was emotionally powerful and well-supplemented by the referenced abortion poems. However, I felt a disconnect between the first and second parts of the essay, as Johnson’s first address of apostrophe seems unrelated to abortion. Regardless, Johnson’s writing flows well between references and her claim is believable – especially because she eliminates counter arguments.


Reflections on “The Walls Do Not Fall”

H.D.’s segment from “The Walls Do Not Fall” was the most striking piece for me this week. This poem was enhanced by my understanding of the time period it was published in – 1944. This year was right before WWII ended. H.D. was an American, and lived through both World Wars, as well as the Great Depression. I think her existence in these three pivotal, and very dark times, in American history is displayed in her writing. My favorite line in her poem is the last one, where she asks “what saved us? what for?” H.D. references past great civilizations who were left in ruins; but us, our flawed and warring modern civilization? We “passed the flame”. But why us?

H.D.’s sense of rhyme was striking. I couldn’t identify a consistent rhyme scheme – but her work has a sing-song quality. However, something about that “song” feels off – much like H.D.’s understanding of the present, the rhyme scheme has a sense of moving, but going nowhere – there’s no satisfying end rhyme to finish or a structured form to follow.

Some of her phrases stuck out to me as well: “there as here”, “we know not nor are known”, “no such shock knit within terror”, etc. These statements made me think of Gertrude Stein due to their sound-reliant and slightly convoluted, “tongue-twister” quality. I wonder if H.D. incorporated these elements to add a similar senselessness that Stein’s work exhibited and to tie that senselessness to this poem’s theme.

I saw similarities between this poem and Yeats’ “The Second Coming”, but H.D.’s work felt more approachable and less theoretical. There was a sense of reality in H.D.’s poem that I think Yeats’ lacked. Perhaps I felt this way because I could not tie Yeats’ imagery to real pictures, while I could clearly envision H.D.’s images of “sliced-walls” in London or lava-covered bodies in Pompeii.

Capitalization in Dickinson

In this assigned reading, Dickinson’s apparently arbitrary usage of capitalization confused me. Years of English classes conditioned us to see capitalized words as significant ones: functioning as the beginning of a sentence or a proper noun. In Dickinson’s work, the beginning of each line is capitalized in the traditional form, but throughout all of her poems, seemingly random words are also capitalized. These words could potentially be ones in need of emphasis, but Dickinson’s frequency of using this technique makes it loose some of emphatic value. Some of her work offered a lyrical rhyme scheme that should have been comfortably easy to follow, but was interrupted by the capitalization. Dickinson broke the flow of her work.

In “372”, Dickinson’s strange punctuation is enhancing. This poem describes the feeling of loss. The shaky sense of interruption that comes when you read the periodic capitalization punctuates the discomfort of loosing someone. She capitalizes “Nerves” and “Tombs”, which act as a comparison in “372”. This use of punctuation helps tie the reader’s eyes to that comparison. However, her later capitalization of “Quartz” seems trivial. So while this technique can strengthen a piece, I also feel it can be obtrusive when used excessively.

Part of my larger conflict with Dickinson’s capitalization is tied to both of the readings. In both cases, I felt I had a very poor sense of what the poet’s subject matter or aim was. In Stevens’ work – specifically “The Emperor of Ice Cream” – I felt disconnected and I did not understand how the title phrase worked with the rest of the action. In Dickinson’s, I felt a similar disconnection that was only emphasized by the capitalization. It was difficult to surmise which words were distinct, and could give some clues to the subject matter, when every other word was capitalized.

Crane in Reference to Eliot

As I read “The Bridge”, one of my primary instincts was to compare it to “The Waste Land”, as the differences between them offered a unique perspective on Crane’s work.

Crane’s poem differed greatly from Eliot’s. Crane’s work is more of a cohesive: he refers back to many of the same poets (Whitman, Melville, Eliot, etc.), extends his metaphors, and I could have understood Crane’s work in lieu of my knowledge of the allusions. In Eliot’s work, the allusions seemed more obvious and their origins were identifiable – often times, direct words or overt symbols from other works were employed. While Crane’s allusions were more connected, I found them less obvious. This subtlety challenged me as used the footnotes. The footnotes often provided a personal interpretation of Crane’s work as opposed to simply a reference. I hesitate to criticize these commentaries, as I know far less about Crane than the students who wrote them. However, the footnotes seemed to be grasping at connections that weren’t necessarily there (or at least obvious to me).

I found some of these footnotes very revealing. The explanation in “Cutty Sark” relating Crane’s sea faring character to Ishmael of Moby Dick and the main character in Rime of the Ancient Mariner added depth to the work. Without the explanations of Columbus’s journey, “Ave Maria” would have been difficult to understand.

However, some footnotes added confusion; The related texts broke up the flow of my reading and interrupted a specific theme to refer back to another one. Sometimes the alluded source seemed to contradict one of Crane’s other sources.

Crane’s work had a much clearer narrative than Eliot’s, but I found Crane’s less enjoyable. The allusions weren’t a “riddle”; they were an enhancement – so I felt less accomplishment when I discovered their meaning.

Struggling Connections

I struggled to understand the allusions in “The Waste Land” based on the footnotes’s limited information. I read through the work, then found a line-by-line annotation with extensions of the references online. That helped as I attempted to form patterns by cross-referencing the poem itself. I selected a few of these cross-references as examples here.

Lines 1-18 seem nostalgic for childhood, the narrator saying “In the mountains, there you feel free”. But in lines 341-343, “there is not even solitude…or silence in the mountains”. Tone shifts significantly – but is this shift due to a change in narrator? Or is it illustrating a change in some greater being who encapsulates all 5 parts of this poem – presumably Eliot himself?

Eliot repeats “violet” – a color symbolizing the Virgin Mary. The “hyacinth girl” may represent this symbol, but later the “violet hour” and it’s loveless sex, offer a direct contradiction to modesty. Is this another shift in Eliot’s own perspective? Is existence a version of this decline? Are we living in the wasteland?

Part 1 of the poem references”dry stone” with “no water”. But these lines are followed by reassurance (“There is shadow under this red rock”, an allusion to the redemptive power of Christ). In lines 331-359, this “dry rock” is revisited. But this time, there is no hope in the form of water. Is Eliot saying Christ has forsaken us? Is Earth really the “unreal city”? Is hope pointless? This is echoed in Eliot’s references to Tristan and Isolde – there is hope of reuniting two lovers before death, but rejoining never occurs.

Eliot couples repetition and changes in connotation to show the duality of life: static and changing. But the poem asks “where does religion fit into this world of shifting certainties?” Are these narrators all thirsting for something worth living for and coming up dry?

Change in Rhyme and Tone in “…Yeats”

W.H. Auden created an elegy titled “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”. The poem sets a clear tone from the start using morose diction. However, what I asserted as a “clear” tone became a challenge for me when Auden altered the rhyme scheme in line 42.

The first two parts of the poem are composed without a clear rhyme scheme and read like lengthy prose. The reader becomes accustomed to this looseness of form and the focus becomes more on the message than the way it is presented. Then Auden alters the rhyme scheme and creates a satisfying rhyme composed of two couplets in each stanza, beginning with an AA-BB rhyme scheme.

Usually this rhyme scheme is enjoyable to read, but in this poem, the transition is disorienting. The audience must relearn how to read the poem. Because the rhyme scheme is so bouncy and predictable, focusing on the content of the work becomes harder. It is much easier to rush through the lines to complete the couplet rhyme.

My confusion with this change is tied to the tone. The lively rhyme contrasts with the somber tone previously established in the poem.

The footnotes state attribute this change to Auden mimicking one of Yeats’s late poems “Under Ben Bulben”, which contains scenes of Yeats’s describing his own grave. Looking at Auden’s transition from that perspective, it makes more sense. Yeats described a morbid scene with a pleasurable rhyme.

I do not know why Audin used this scheme at the very end of his poem, as opposed to keeping the entire work in the same form. Perhaps he was trying to reflect the abrupt change that came with Yeats’s death. Maybe Audin was trying to show how Yeats had impacted his own work by showing the combination of the two forms.

Stanza Organization in “Lines…”

The confusion in “Lines…” pertains to it’s arrangement.

“Lines…” has 5 stanzas of varying lengths, as short as 9 lines and ranging into 54. The rhyme scheme is nonexistent. However, Wordsworth definitely chose some sort of arranging factor. He has very few lines of extreme length and rarely ends lines where a complete thought would stop. They seem to be split apart rather arbitrarily.

The first confusion: the amount of stanzas. The amount could potentially be tied to Wordsworth’s first 2 lines, which discuss “five years…five summers..” and “five long winters”. In this way, the 5 stanzas reflect the 5 years of waiting.

The length of each line can also be explained. It seems as though Wordsworth utilizes iambic pentameter. Not every line seems to follow this perfectly, but the majority of the lines have 5 feet, with unstressed-stressed syllables. So the line breaks, are in fact, not “arbitrary”.

The question of stanza length remains debatable. He may group the stanzas together thematically. For example, the fourth stanza discusses Wordsworth’s view of nature from his experience as a boy, contrasted with his view as an adult. In this way, the lengthy stanza is grouped methodically, it just appears long-winded. Perhaps this long length is a way to emphasize Wordsworth’s equally long process of reinterpreting the significance of Earth.

One final confusion pertains to why Wordsworth’s method varied between “The Tables…” and “Lines…”. “The Tables…” has an abab rhyme scheme and 8 stanzas of 4 lines. Perhaps “The Tables…” is more structured because Wordsworth is responding to an intellectual critic and attempting to prove the value of nature as an educator by displaying his own abilities to keep form. The lack of clear stereotypical poetic arrangement in “Lines…” can be contributed to Wordsworth’s sister functioning as a listener – so instead of a critic, he is speaking to an understanding ally.

Student Presentation – Clara Burke



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This is the poem I will be discussing tomorrow – it is arranged as a sentence diagram. In this form, the sentence is broken down into it’s basic parts. The core subject and verb are identified and separated by a horizontal line. Every word underneath any vertical line modifies the word above it (ie: adjectives, prepositional phrases, adverbial phrases, etc.). I’ll explain more about the form tomorrow, but this is simple background to make reading the poem easier.

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